Part 5

Changing the world is a habit


I’m working on a cookbook for climate change but I refuse to calculate how much kg C02 someone would save with a meal. It’s just too little. Looking at the numbers, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. But the impact is not primarily in the numbers. It’s in the chain reaction.

In a previous article I argued that the lifestyle of the richest 10% is the solution to climate change. People have to change their life. There’s no other way around it. But telling people to change their lifestyle is like facing a lion. They run away from the problem. Survival mode can be useful but today it’s often an obstacle to change:

“The real problem with the amygdala and its fight-or-flight response today is that it sets off alarm bells whenever we want to make a departure from our usual, safe routines. The brain is designed so that any new challenge or opportunity or desire triggers some degree of fear.” (Robert Maurer, 2014)

Think of asking for a raise or asking your crush on a date. It’s too scary to even begin with. The solution is making the first step so small that it feels ridiculous.

A stressed single mother was facing health issues, but she couldn’t find time to exercise. To the shock of her doctor, a psychologist suggested walking in front of the TV for one minute every day. This was something so small that it didn’t activate the fear that she couldn’t do it.

“When Julie returned for a follow-up visit, she reported that she’d indeed marched in front of the TV set for one minute each night. Granted, she wasn’t going to get much healthier with just sixty seconds of low-intensity exercise. But during this second visit, I noticed that Julie’s attitude had changed. Instead of coming back discouraged, as so many failed exercisers do, Julie was more animated, with less resistance in her speech and demeanour. ‘What else can I do in one minute a day?’ she wanted to know. I was thrilled.” (Robert Maurer, 2014)

We have to find the equal of marching in front of your TV for one minute; to set a tiny step into the right direction. Because once people take action, they have added a snowflake to their own mental snowball.

Mental snowball

Your mental snowball is important because people are not as rational as we like to think. We believe we carefully weigh different options, form an opinion and then act on it. But research has shown that your opinion and attitude is often a result of your past actions (Melissa Lane, 2015).

The power of habit is that its effects accumulate. But there is more to habit: it also shapes our values. Taking small steps into the right direction is like practising the values of a new system. We shape our desires through our habits.

As my theology professor Johan Tredoux once said: “We need to act our way to a new way of thinking, rather than think our way to a new way of acting.”

Critical mass

But even people start to change their lifestyle, how can we convince everyone to join? We can’t, and we don’t have to.

When people imagine growth or progress they imagine a rising line. What we forget is that actions or events can reinforce each other. Humans are not very good with exponential growth. For example, take a look at these dominos:

Domino Chain Reaction - From

Whether you call it the domino- or the snowball-effect, the point is that a small critical mass is enough to start a powerful process. In that video, there are 13 dominos. If there would be 26, the last domino would be the height of the Empire State Building.

Our actions have consequences for the people around us. If you act now, it could inspire me to also take action (Melissa Lane, 2015). This sounds obvious but the effect is stronger than you think. For example, if you have fat friends, the chances you will gain weight are 45% higher. More interesting is that your chances of gaining weight are still 25% higher if your friend’s friends are fat and 10% higher for your friend’s friends’ friends (Nicholas Christakis, 2010).

Research about big system changes also confirms that it starts with people who see the problem and set small steps (Jelmer Mommers, 2015). An example is Dutch water management. The traditional approach was hiring engineers to calculate different scenarios for dykes and possible floods. In the 70s, a small group realised that the approach would have to change. Researchers and activists came together and were allowed to experiment. One of them got into a position to hire people and instead of adding more engineers he selected ecologists. This lead to conflict but also new conversations and ideas.

Then there were two big floods within 3 years. Engineers had calculated they would only happen once every 10.000 years.

That’s when something had to change and that small group of frontrunners had paved the way. They had done the pilots and were in strategic positions to change the system.

In the same way, I believe we’re in a preparation phase for climate change. A small group of people is building a new way of life. Most have don’t have a big impact, but they are preparing the minds of others. Then, at some point there will be massive change.

The hard part

Setting a mental framework for climate change and how to solve it is important. But the difficult part is acting.

“Many programs run by the professional improvers of society are built on education, not training; on delivering facts rather than strengthening practice. Knowledge matters. But our efforts too often stop at knowledge, because it’s easier to measure what we’ve told people than it is to measure how we’ve changed people. It is easier to preach to people than to practice with them.” – Eric Greitens (2015)

At the beginning of this series, I told you how I want to be a pastor for sustainability. This is different from a preacher. A pastor does not only preach on Sunday. A pastor guides the community, listens to their concerns, and walks life with them.

So dear reader, will you walk the talk with me?

The next article will be about food because it’s the biggest opportunity for change. That’s also why I started Fork Ranger, to help people start the process and practice with them.


Robert Maurer (2014). One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. From

Melissa Lane (2015). Philosophy der Nachhaltigkeit – Es ist nicht egal, was du tust. From

Jelmer Mommers (2015). Hoe duurzaamheid een duurzame samenleving in de weg staat (en wat eraan te doen). From

Nicholas Christakis (2010). The hidden influence of of social networks. From

Eric Greitens (2015). Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life.

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